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NEW YORK (Reuters) - While more than a million people ring in the new year with their eyes on a glittering ball high above Times Square, a select group of construction workers and city officials will toast 2017 underground on the inaugural ride of a subway line a century in the making.
Only about a quarter of the line, envisioned to run 8.5 miles (13.7 km) from Harlem to near Wall Street, is opening over the weekend. It is two miles (3.2 km) long, with three stations on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Given its history of delays, completion of the entire line could be in the distant future.
The launch of Manhattan's Second Avenue line, which is by invitation only, will be about 100 feet below the street starting around 10 p.m. on Saturday (0300 GMT on Sunday). The public can start riding the line at 12 noon (1700 GMT) on Sunday.
Governor Andrew Cuomo and Thomas Prendergast, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that operates the country's biggest subway system, are scheduled to host the ceremonial opening.
First proposed in the 1920s, the Second Avenue line became mythologized over the years as the best transit idea New York never built. Construction started and stopped three times before it actively got underway in April 2007.
New York City's subway system began with the opening of the City Hall station in 1904.
The Democratic governor has spoken with pride of art, including 12 portraits by painter and photographer Chuck Close, that graces the walls of phase one's three new stations at 72nd Street, 86th Street and 96th Street.
"Even if a child never walks into a museum ... they should be exposed to art that gives them that aspect, that perspective and that creativity," Cuomo said on NBC's "Today" show on Friday.
Hosts of the ceremonial ride include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New-York Historical Society and the Whitney Museum of American Art; a trade group for the real estate industry; the New York Mets baseball team; Local 29 of the Blasters, Drillrunners and Miners Union, and Sandhogs Local 147, the union for urban miners and construction workers who work underground in New York City.
Special features have added to the costs of the project that rang in at $4.5 billion for its first phase. Critics have said the cost of big construction projects in the United States is far too high compared with similar projects elsewhere in the world.
Still, the stations boast other features such as high ceilings and wide platforms without support columns.
Compared with the entire system, with its 460 stations, 230 route miles and 5.6 million weekday riders, the new service may seem unimpressive, but for residents of the relatively isolated East Side, the opening is welcome.
Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Toni Reinhold